It was that hallowed time of Peace On Earth, Good Will Toward Men, and shining tinsel decorations were strung all over the Golden Q Billiard Parlor. Luther (Wimpy) Lassiter, the world pocket billiards champion, and James ( Cicero) Murphy, who was contesting Wimpy's eminence, wished each other a happy holiday and other tidings of good cheer. Then Lassiter screwed together his pool cue with the $2.50 gold coin imbedded in the shaft, Murphy unbuttoned his tuxedo coat, and in this Yuletide setting the two men got down to the business of beating each other's brains out.
They shot pool for five days—all through the week between Christmas and New Year's—with the world championship plus $1,500 belonging to the winner and $1,000 plus condolences to the loser. No matter what was playing at the Radio City Music Hall across the East River in Manhattan, no matter what was happening anywhere, this was the green felt supergame, this was the holiday show for hustlers.
It is necessary to understand that Wimpy Lassiter and Cicero Murphy are magical names in an insulated world within a world. The Golden Q is in Queens, a jewel among the auto-repair shops and junkyards and not the easiest place in the world to find. Still, when the game began, every shooter in the East—informed by the mysterious network that drums out news of where the action is—had arrived. They sat in the bleachers and stared, enchanted, at the sight of one man reducing another to the quivers.
For this select audience the destruction was a joy to behold. The game is fourteen-one—otherwise known as straight pool—but by any name it is sweet torture. Let any two ordinary sharks play it, mincing around a table and pretending to be elaborately casual, and the pressures are tough enough. But put the two best shooters in the world in a game and it suddenly is more than a contest involving the knocking of colored balls into pockets. It becomes a ballet of dainty, deadly, impossible shots. Each man tightens the other down, turn by turn, until those telling beads of sweat appear on foreheads, veins stand out along necks in bold relief and there is not enough dusting powder in the whole world to keep the palms dry.
Championship pool is a perilous, careful game of cool eye and calm wrist. But shots are only one part of it. The other part began almost as soon as Cicero Murphy hit his first ball on Monday afternoon.
"I do declare, Mr. Murphy," Luther Lassiter, who is silver-haired and old-plantation, would sincerely say, "you sure are gettin' in some right fine strokes."
And Murphy, who is born fresh, lives a lifetime and dies of old age with each game, would smile uncertainly, acknowledging the compliment. Then he would hit a wobbler, bending over the table, the large vein pulsing across his forehead. Then he would miss.
It was all very regulation. That is, Wimpy and Cicero were introduced as Mister Lassiter and Mister Murphy. The event was an official world challenge match—which meant they had to wear tuxedos. This is done to show the world that pocket billiards is a game played by gentlemen under Tiffany lamps in elegant, pine-paneled rooms.
Still, there was enough of the oldtime aroma to prove that pool—glory be—will never really change. On the large, hand-painted scoreboard the word challenge was spelled "challange," and the air was mauve with cigar smoke, which was pierced by the occasional glint of diamond ring on little finger or solid-gold inlay on front tooth. The tournament table was bracketed on two sides by bleachers set in so close that the crowd had to draw back or duck for some of the shots. It seemed that the two champs were playing for their lives in a pit.
For a game shot through with overtones of terror, the mechanics were deceptively simple. The match was 1,500 points—one point per ball pocketed. But to get that far the shooters had to struggle through 10 games and a progressive point system, giving each man the chance to reduce the other to Jell-O, which is what pool is all about.